There’s no mistaking a Nord keyboard when you see one—the bright red casing makes it hard to miss and that look has become iconic in the music industry. Nord has become a brand favorite of traveling musicians in the last 20 years, largely due to the impressive, strong build quality of Nord keyboards.
The first keyboard in the Nord Lead series, the Nord Lead 1, was released in 1995 to positive reviews. The Nord Lead 1 utilized digital signal processors to emulate subtractive and FM synthesis rather than being an analog synthesizer. Nord has continued to build upon their original keyboard in their Lead series, updating polyphonic capabilities, oscillator types, arpeggiators, LFO patterns, and more for the last 20 years.
The Nord Lead 4, released in 2013, continues the tradition of the Nord Lead series and makes some adjustments on the way. The resulting product is a modern instrument, allowing for a greater palette of effects and filters to play with. While many have argued that the Nord Lead 4 is not the best instrument in the Lead series, it surely introduced some new editing parameters that you won’t be able to emulate with the Nord Lead 1, 2, 2X, or 3.
Please check out our interactive table below, where you can directly compare the Nord Lead 4 to other notable synthesizers that are currently on the market.
|Photo||Model||# of Keys||Weight||Price||Rating|
|Nord Lead 4||49||$$$||2-Oscillator Virtual Analog Subtractive Synthesis||★★★★★|
|Korg MS20 Mini||37||$||USB MIDI Plus 5-Pin MIDI||★★★★|
|Novation Bass Station II||25||$||Fully Analog Distortion & Filter-Modulation Effects||★★★★|
|Korg Minilogue||37||$$||16-Step Polyphonic Step & Motion Sequencer||★★★★|
|Roland JD-XI||37||$||Gooseneck mic w/built-in Vocoder & AutoPitch||★★★★|
|Roland JD-XA||49||$$||Discrete Analog Synth Engine||N/A|
|Dave Smith Instruments Sequential Prophet-6||49||$$$||Two Discrete VCOs Per Voice||★★★★★|
|Dave Smith Instruments Pro 2||44||$$$||Four DSP-Based Oscillators||★★★★★|
|Novation UltraNova||37||$$||Full-sized Keys & a Vocoder||★★★★|
The Classic Nord Aesthetic
As I mentioned above, the Nord brand is easily distinguished by the bright red color of their instruments’ casing. While the sunny, yellow casing of the DSI Mopho synthesizer was an aesthetic deterrent for many potential customers, the bright red color of Nord keyboards is not nearly as offensive. The bright redness is iconic, and I don’t see the color being abandoned by Nord any more than I see Disney abandoning Mickey Mouse as a mascot.
While playing the Nord Lead 4, you’ll be looking at a surprisingly small section of knobs and editing parameters, taking up only half of the front panel. The look is modern and slick, and the black/grey background of the editing panel provides a nice contrast to the bright redness of the rest of the instrument. When you toggle different editing options on and off, the LED indicator lights are red, allowing for aesthetic consistency.
Below, please take a moment to view some of the best-selling synthesizers on Amazon, and then see how well they stack up to the Nord Lead 4.
No LCD Screen?
Nord has abandoned the Lead 3’s LCD screen with the Lead 4, and that is one aspect of the keyboard that is sorely missed. It can often seem like there’s some wasted space on the Nord Lead 4’s front panel, since the editing parameters only take up half of it.
Secondly, I sometimes found myself wishing that the editing panel was shifted over to the center instead of sitting on the left hand side. If I’m playing a bass ostinato in my left hand and want to edit its sound in real time, I have to cross my right hand over to reach the editing panel. If the editing panel was situated in the center of the front panel, it would allow for a more comfortable editing-while-playing technique.
Nord keyboards always boast a strong build quality and the Nord Lead 4 is no different. Nord designs these instruments with the gigging musician in mind, so they pay careful attention to the sturdiness of the outer casing so that the instrument will be kept safe while traveling. The addition of the wood end-pieces on either side help protect the synth as well without detracting from the instrument’s aesthetic.
This isn’t a Nord digital piano, so the keys aren’t fully weighted, and this is a good thing. They keyboard itself is very comfortable to play, and a shallow keybed allows for precision playing, especially during fast passages. The four-octave keyboard, bookended by C pitches, is a pretty standard layout for synths because it works, and this is no exception.
You can also use the “Octave shift” option to transpose, giving you a full bass-to-soprano range to experiment with. The keys are full-sized, which means you can really start digging into your playing right out of the box instead of adjusting to mini-sized keys that many synths are incorporating now.
If you’ve ever played a Nord keyboard, you will be familiar with the feel of the knobs and buttons, as it hasn’t changed that much across models. Every knob feels sturdy, comfortable, and is easy to grip. Each one provides a good amount of resistance as to not feel slippery. Each button is a comfortable size with a small indention in the plastic.
Every button gives a satisfying “click” as feedback when pressed. I sometimes felt the buttons were a little bit on the cheaper side, and they may not respond as well after being pressed hundreds of times. However, I can’t prove that since I played a newer model, so that’s only speculation.
The wooden pitch-bend stick is a unique design to Nord and it does the job well. Because of its firm resistance, it feels very satisfying to achieve a small bit of vibrato on sustained notes by wiggling it back and forth. The top of it is curved to make sure you can wiggle it comfortably without having to grip it with two fingers.
To the bottom right of the wooden stick is the mod wheel, which contains a small notch in it to indicate its position. I do wish the mod wheel was a little bit wider—I believe it would be a little bit easier to play. Nord is one of the few who has a mod wheel with this slim design, and I think, although it’s unique, it’s not entirely practical.
The Sounds of Synthesis
The Nord Lead 4 is a versatile instrument, and simply looking at the front panel quickly lets you know what is packed in this synth:
- 2 Oscillators
- 2 LFOs
- 7 Filter options (5 low pass, 1 high pass, 1 band pass)
- Mod ENV and Amp ENV
It should be understood by any potential buyer that the Nord Lead 4 is not an analog synthesizer—it is an analog modeling synthesizer. This means that instead of achieving synthesis via analog components, the Nord Lead 4 achieves sound through digital signal processing and software algorithms.
The sounds that can be achieved with the Nord Lead 4 are wonderfully unique and surprisingly big. The default patches make sure you understand the diversity of the instrument. Once you open it up and plug it in, you will have hollow leads, dense pads, dirty basses, and shimmering keys at your fingertips without even dabbling in patch editing.
Although, because it’s not an analog synthesizer, I found that the wave forms themselves have a bit of a harsher sound to them than you would find on an analog synth, almost as if they contained a small bit of distortion.
The Nord Lead 4 contains two oscillators, the second substitutes a noise generator for oscillator one’s additional waves. The oscillators feel good and versatile, and the noise option of OSC 2 allows for some wonderful sound effects and grooving drum beats.
Scrolling through the different oscillator options was fun experimentation, but I did realize that the synth didn’t always sound like an analog synth—there were some patches that gave away that it was a digital synthesizer.
I don’t mean for that to be a value judgement—patches that are digital giveaways ended up being some of my favorite sounds because they are unique. It’s important for a synthesizer to offer something that separates it from other synths, and I think some of the harsher, distorted, or punchier sounds I was able to achieve with the Nord Lead 4 are testaments to that.
The filters of the Nord Lead 4 are very satisfying to use and respond naturally. They often convinced me for a moment that I was playing an analog synthesizer. Because there are so many modes of filters, every player should be content with what can be accomplished with them. There are also two ADSR contour generators in the synth, and the diverse sounds that can be achieved with them range from super-fast clicks to tender decays and every subtlety in between.
The Nord Lead 4 continues a series of analog modeling synths that continues to impress and delight. It offers many editing parameters that can be used to tweak an already impressive catalog of delightful presets. Although it doesn’t always sound like an analog synthesizer, the character it achieves, especially on crunchier leads, had me excited as I edited.
This is a synthesizer for someone that isn’t wanting another analog synthesizer. If an analog synth is what you’re looking for, get an analog synth instead (many of them are cheaper than the Nord Lead 4 anyway). You don’t necessarily need to have tons of synthesis experience to enjoy the Lead 4. Because of the factory presets, it’s easy to start making interesting music from the get-go, and the simplistic layout of the front panel encourages experimental learning.
The Nord Lead 4 really excels at aggressive, fast lead sounds and crunchy basses. Interestingly, the Nord Lead A1 (the newest Lead model) excels at lush strings and gentler patches. Consider the contrast between these two synthesizers and determine which one suits your needs best.
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